By David Skolnick
and Samantha Phillips
Communities that use speed cameras, including a growing number in the Mahoning Valley, would lose the amount of money they collect from those civil citations in state funding under a bill approved by the Ohio House.
The bill easily passed the House 65-19 and is on its way to the Ohio Senate, where it’s also expected to be approved, and then signed into law by Gov. John Kasich.
Local communities with cameras include Youngstown, Girard, Liberty, Howland and Weathersfield.
“It does raise concerns because the [speed-camera] money has been used to replace general-fund money for police purchases,” said Youngstown Finance Director Kyle Miasek. “If it affects how the state provides funds, it would be a significant concern.”
Youngstown expects to raise $888,000 in traffic-camera revenue this year, Miasek said.
But Mayor Jamael Tito Brown said if the bill becomes law, Youngstown would still keep the speed cameras for safety. But losing state funding would hurt the city, which uses citation money for police-equipment purchases, he said.
Police Chief Robin Lees said the cameras have slowed down vehicles in target enforcement areas – school zones and highways, particularly on Interstate 680 between South Avenue and Meridian Road, where the speed limit is 50 mph.
“We’ve been good stewards of the money. We’ve been responsible with enforcement and have reduced speed,” Lees said.
The bill, as passed by the House, requires communities to report annually to the state the gross amount of fines collected from traffic-camera enforcement – this also includes red-light citations – to the state which would then subtract an equal amount from the Local Government Fund the communities receive, said state Rep. Bill Seitz, a Cincinnati Republican.
A longtime opponent of red-light and speed cameras, Seitz led the charge to restrict them. The Ohio Supreme Court ruled last year the Legislature couldn’t restrict communities from using the cameras.
“We are simply determining that if jurisdictions choose to raise their revenue through issuing civil citations for red light/speed cameras, they [lose] state money to that extent,” Seitz said.
The money that would be withheld from communities would go to the Ohio Department of Transportation to enhance public safety on roads, he said.
Youngstown is getting $1.48 million in Local Government Fund money this year.
The bill would also eliminate community-run administrative hearings on these civil citations and require jurisdictions to have the matters heard through a municipal or county court judge.
State Rep. John Boccieri of Poland, D-59th, who voted against the bill, said, “What I don’t like in this bill is the dollar-for-dollar reduction in state funding for money collected by the communities. I don’t like red-light cameras. It’s largely been a money grab, but that’s because the state has cut local government funding. We don’t need to cut money to local governments for using the cameras. These cameras are another unintended consequence of state cuts.”
Girard Mayor James Melfi said it’s not the communities grabbing money.
Mayors and administrators have the responsibility to maintain public safety and infrastructure despite reduced funding, and “these state reps who supported the measure never had or understand that responsibility,” he said.
“In 2011, Girard received $243,000 in Local Government funding. This year, we are going to receive $107,000 in Local Government funding. So you see the difference in what the state of Ohio has already taken away from the city on an annual basis, the money that was used for infrastructure projects and repaving roads,” Melfi said. The city will continue to operate its camera program.
Pat Ungaro, Liberty administrator, said his community doesn’t generate much revenue from its traffic-camera program, but he opposes the bill. “I don’t think they should cut state funding for anything. They raised their rainy-day fund at the expense of all the townships and cities. They cut back and they kept the money,” he said.